Different types of holidays require different gear, and one of the biggest choices most of us make as we head off to the airport is the choice between packing everything into a backpack or a suitcase. They each have their strengths and weaknesses and are better suited for certain situations.
The choice between these two might seem arbitrary. But anyone who's had to lug a roller suitcase for a kilometre down a dirt road from the train to a hotel, or who's pulled a wrinkled suit out of a backpack right before a wedding, knows that the wrong choice can ruin a holiday.
I think it's best to break this down into three categories: Suitcases (like a common carry-on roller bag), small backpacks that could fit underneath the seat, and larger backpacks that need to go in the overhead compartment. From there, it's all about a few simple questions, such as how long your trip is, what you'll be doing, what seasons you'll run into, how much more travel you'll do when you arrive, what the infrastructure is like at your destination, and how much you plan on bringing back with you.
Pros and Cons of Suitcases
Suitcases are the preferred and likely best choice when you're heading to just one destination and you plan on staying there until you return. In that situation, chances are you won't be dragging your suitcase around everywhere, unlike a backpack. For example, I almost always bring a suitcase when I head home for the holidays or when I travel to a wedding (or funeral). I also took a suitcase when I went on a road trip through the US South because I had a car the whole time, and suitcases are much easier to repack than backpacks.
- Hard-shell suitcases can take a beating and you can lock a suitcase if you're worried about theft.
- Wheeling a suitcase through airports is far more comfortable than walking with a backpack.
- Unless you're an expert packer, it's easier to pack formal wear wrinkle-free in suitcases.
- Suitcases are infinitely easier to repack than a top-loading backpack.
- Most suitcases, especially hard shell ones, are waterproof.
- Some suitcases make it easier to separate dirty clothes from clean ones. Organisation in general is easier with a suitcase.
- Carrying a suitcase sucks and those wheels don't help on cobblestones, dirt or other tricky terrain.
- Wheeling around a suitcase in a crowded city or onto crowded trains is usually a hassle. Generally, it's hard to be mobile with a suitcase, which is problematic if you plan on using a lot of public transportation or you're travelling by boat at any point.
- A good suitcase is usually at least a couple of hundred bucks, but a bad, cheap suitcase with squeaky wheels or weak zippers can ruin a holiday.
If you're shopping for a new suitcase, I'm a fan of the Timbuk2 Co-Pilot, partially because it has a lot of different organisation systems inside the bag, including an easy access top compartment that's perfect for travel snacks.
When a Suitcase Is Best
The humble suitcase is best suited for travelling to resorts, if you're renting a car, if you physically can't carry something on your back for hours at a time, when travelling to weddings or other formal affairs, and when travelling for work. Suitcases can work in a number of situations, but they shine brightest when you're staying in one place for a while as opposed to moving around between different hotels or hostels.
Pros and Cons of Small Backpacks
As most of us would expect, small backpacks are the obvious choice for long weekends or shorter trips. They're also perfect for minimalists who tend to travel with travel-specific gear and don't mind doing laundry along the trip. The Wirecutter has a great collection of the type of gear I'm talking about here, but think wool socks, fast-drying underwear and a portable laundry detergent like this for everything else. I did a two week trip with a smaller 16.2L bag from Topo Designs by reusing and cleaning a lot of clothes along the way.
- Tiny and easy to carry anywhere, giving you near-limitless mobility. Plus, you can run to trains, jump over puddles, and fling yourself into the back of a taxi without much effort.
- Fits underneath the seat so you don't need to worry about the plane running out of overhead storage room or losing it.
- Small backpacks are multi-use. Where a suitcase is pretty much only useful when travelling, you'll have far more reasons to grab a small backpack for day trips, hikes or whatever else.
- The small size means you only bring what you need and you don't buy a bunch of useless junk to bring back home with you (which some may view as a con).
- Smaller backpacks are often top-loading, which means you need to completely unpack, then repack, every time you need to get something.
- Backpacks are a little more personal than luggage, so you have to work to find one that fits you. That usually means trying on a bunch.
- The size can be a big problem if you like to have a lot of options when you travel. Small backpacks don't work well if you're going to be in multiple climates and need a variety of clothes.
- A backpack isn't as sturdy as a suitcase, so you usually don't want to sit on it or throw it around.
- You're basically required to roll your clothes instead of fold them, which can make it tough to cram in certain types of formal wear (no matter how good you are at packing, I challenge you to stuff a suit into a daypack and not have it come out 10 hours later wrinkled and weird).
If you're not sure where to start with finding a backpack, popularity is only part of the equation. Shopping for a bag that is comfortable takes a little skill and research beyond Google.
When a Small Backpack is Best
The small backpack is the king of short trips, moving quickly between different places after you arrive, and for those who don't mind doing a little laundry on the go.
Pros and Cons of Large Backpacks
Larger backpacks might be the perfect compromise for travel. They work well for people who don't want to lug a suitcase around, but don't want to sacrifice the amount of storage they have. I'm talking about twice the size of a daypack, around the 30-50L range. This usually moves the bag from underneath the seat in front of you on a flight to the overhead compartment.
This is my personal choice whenever it's possible, though as you'd expect there are plenty of circumstances where it doesn't work.
- Is more mobile than a suitcase, but can fit nearly as much as stuff as a suitcase when planned out well.
- The larger the backpack, the more pockets you get. The more pockets you get, the more ways you have to organise stuff.
- Tend to find yourself running late a lot? It's way easier to run with a backpack than it is with a suitcase.
- Multi-use in that you can use it as intended, for backpacking, or for travel.
- Typically, even cheaper backpacks of this size can withstand a beating, so they should be fine in an aeroplane.
- It's easy to keep an eye on a backpack when you're travelling since it's attached to your back.
- Larger backpacks can be expensive and it's harder to find one that fits you well.
- It's tougher to lock a backpack than it is to lock a suitcase -- all those otherwise handy pockets make it so you'd need 10 different locks.
- No matter how strong you think you are, lugging around a big backpack full of a ton of stuff will never be comfortable.
- Even if you get a backpack that zips open entirely, it's harder to organise everything in a backpack than in a suitcase.
- You'll need to master the art of rolling clothes, because folding clothes in a backpack almost never works.
- It's often a little difficult to find the right size bag for a trip. When a backpack isn't full, some models tend to sit weirdly on your shoulders.
When a Larger Backpack Is Best
Larger backpacks are likely best for anyone who can't commit to the smaller backpack, but doesn't mind carrying something on their back the whole trip. They're good when you have a diverse, complex itinerary of travel ahead of you, like if you're flying in, then hopping in a cab, then taking trains to get around after that.
You have a lot of variety for options on this size of bag. Osprey's Farpoint is one of the most popular, as is North Face's Overhaul 40. I'm about to test out this Travel Bag from Topo that I picked up on sale for cheap a few weeks ago. The Tom Bihn Tri-Star is also highly recommended, though pricey. Again, as with smaller backpacks, it's about your build and what suits you best, so you'll need to do some shopping around.
Of course, there are plenty of people who prefer one option over the other, and will use the one that suits them regardless of the destination. That's also totally fine! There are also a small, but curious group of people who somehow prefer a duffle bag, which I will perhaps never understand.